Last week Steve Davis reported that the Major League Soccer Board of Directors discussed a plan to reduce the season to 28 games. Laid out were several points about revenue, schedule balance, and the impact to the schedule with the inclusion of NYCFC; missing was a larger discussion on the quality of play.
The reduction of six games with the stipulation of no matches during international breaks is a significant step forward for teams and individual players. Perhaps, most important to the readers, it is a benefit to the fans.After the LA Galaxy 1-0 home lost to the Colorado Rapids, Bruce Arena criticized the league for playing matches during the break. The Galaxy managed defensively, but after netting 11 goals in their previous four games, they could not produce a goal against a mostly intact Rapids squad. Of those 11 goals, their three absentee Designated Players, Omar Gonzalez (1), Robbie Keane (5) and Landon Donovan (5) scored all of them. Yet, the fate that befell LA was not shared by every team missing starters. The Portland Timbers thrashed Toronto FC 4-0 despite the absence of their three Reggae Boyz.
Regardless of the outcomes, forcing players to pick between club and country during an important stretch of the season is unfair for them and their relative teams. Teams that draft well and sign talented players are unduly penalized, as the league salary cap does not allow for sufficient depth.
Until the past few years, I have not subscribed to the notion MLS needed an international break for the sake of legitimacy in the world soccer community. Liga MX and many of the South and Central American leagues don’t break, however their many of their seasons coincides with the primary FIFA schedule so they avoid the summer international tournaments. As the MLS attracts more national team level talent across the hemisphere, playing through breaks is no longer feasible. With the last round of qualifiers scheduled during the final three weeks of the season, fans demanding a playoff berth and coaches depending on one for survival are in unfortunate positions.
Seattle, in the thick of the Western race, may find themselves outside of the post-season because they are scheduled to play Vancouver and away to Portland during the October qualifiers. Of course, all league games are weighted equally. Stars on international break or not, are also all valued the same in the stands, as well as the cost per ticket for season ticket holders. While the teams may offer discounted tickets or promotions to attract fans during the breaks, fans that purchase packages and plans pay the same per game for a full squad as they do for a diminished quality product.
Injuries are unfortunate and unpredictable, something no team can plan for with precision, however, losing players to international games is far from unanticipated. FIFA provides the international schedule in advance. This year’s World Cup qualifiers started from the end of May and will go through to the middle of October. Teams sign internationally capped players for more than just their soccer talents. They develop and align marketing campaigns around these players. If the salary cap was not in place, perhaps, it would be less of an issue in terms of competition and quality. Nevertheless, MLS is a star driven league that splashed their few brand name players all over TV commercials, media guides, and web banners. Adidas does a better job expanding a broader selection of players than the league. Regardless, MLS parades these athletes out to sell the league knowing in advance that the players will likely miss 10 games per season for international duty.
It is difficult to feel sympathy for the La Galaxy, Bruce Arena, and their fan base; however, it is a a rip off for the twenty thousand at the StubHub Center to pay for Keane and Donovan only to get Jack McBean and Jose Villarreal. I know I wouldn’t mind sacrificing six games of that a season.